Once Upon a Time (ABC, Sundays at 8 p.m. ET) debuted this week to impressive ratings. By the network’s count, 16 million people tuned in. If you were among them and you have a ballpark idea about the workings of its overarching structure, then please do get in touch. Is the show a glossily renovated fairy tale? A richly costumed fable about fantasy? A genial bunch of heigh-ho heigh-hokum? I am willing to accept “all of the above” as an answer, but I may reject the show if that’s the case. It would confirm a suspicion that Once Upon a Time, created by two veterans of Lost, offers a young-reader version of the earlier series’ metaphysics and mythology.
Tell me if I’ve got this straight. Long ago—many years before ABC’s parent company started along the road leading inexorably to Campbell’s Cool Shape Disney Princess Soup—there existed a place called Fairy Tale Land. Here, Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) chastely planted one on the cold kisser of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and brought her back to life and made an honest woman of her. Alas, the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) darkened their wedding when, deliciously rolling the R in the word destrrroy, she promised to visit doom on all the nicest citizens of FTL, including its talking cricket. Why? Unclear. The series, fueling itself with folklore, proceeds as if no characterization is required, and she is the Motiveless Evil Queen. When the day of the doom comes—“out of your sufferrring will rrrise my victory!”—the Land falls under the gloom of a curse. The lone escapee is Snow White’s daughter, Emma.
Meanwhile, in the present day, there lives in Boston a tough and tender loner, an orphan in her late 20s, named Emma (Jennifer Morrison). One night, a 10-year-old kid—a plucky lad lugging around the book in which the above fantasy unfolds—interrupts Emma’s solitary brooding to claim that he is the boy she gave up for adoption. Emma warily gives the kid a ride back to his hometown of “Storybrooke,” which is in Maine. What will this Storybrooke be? A depressed mill town? A voluminous saltwater-taffy shop? A hallucination from Stephen King’s drug days? It is postcard-pretty, but the Fairy Tale Landers are accursedly trapped within the postcard’s edges. Snow White is the kid’s saintly schoolteacher, the Evil Queen his brittle mother, the cricket his human shrink. The imp formerly known as Rumpelstiltskin is now a local tyrant named Mr. Gold, and Robert Carlyle is energetically skeevy in the dual role. The show, braiding its strands of plots at its own pace, encourages us to climb into a narrative about motherhood and childhood and escaping from narrative. I will go, but gingerly, drawn by playful performances but wary that Storybrooke, Maine, is essentially Pine Valley, Pa.
This brings us to Grimm (NBC, Fridays at 9 p.m. ET), which begins with a college student wearing a sorority-issue sweatshirt popping out for her morning run. The red of her hoodie is all the more conspicuous for clashing with the pink of her sneakers and of the iPod that speeds her jog along to the pulse the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.” Trotting through the green woods, she spots a gewgaw on a log—a ceramic doll on the order of a Hummel figurine—stoops to pick it up, and is promptly punished for her curiosity by getting swept from the frame by a hairy blur and torn to pieces.
No such fate befalls the audience, which is likewise examining a minor piece of kitsch. Instead, we live to lay eyes on hero Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) as he bounces out of a jewelry store, having just spent two months of his cop’s salary to buy his girlfriend a surprise present. When Nick’s partner teases him for being “young and innocent,” he is referencing the man’s idealism about love and his unshaken belief in “happily ever after.” But also Nick is a relatively green crimefighter. He has not yet discharged his gun in his career (though he must have brutally clubbed a malefactor or two with that studly chin of his).
Nick never gets a chance, in the pilot, to put a ring on it. His aunt abruptly rolls into town to tell him that he was born into a line of supernatural criminal profilers: “Your parents didn’t die in a crash. They were killed.” Aha! This explains why, when Nick’s partner implored him to check out a random hottie on the street, he alone saw her face contort into the gruesome visage of a vivacious zombie. Nick has the power to recognize the literal monsters among us. “The misfortune of our family is already passing to you,” the aunt explains, warning him that he shouldn’t complicate his GF’s life by dragging her into all of this. (This is just as well, since the girl is less a character than a plot complication.) Later, the aunt’s voice rings in Nick’s head, Yoda-like, as he pursues the murder case: “You need to be careful now. This isn’t a fairy tale.” No, it certainly isn’t. Grimm is a familiar procedural in big bad wolf’s clothing. Nick’s uncanny talent puts him in the same category as all of your favorite mentalists, psych-out artists, mnemonic superfreaks, intuitive geniuses, and human lie detectors enforcing the law elsewhere on television.
The protagonist is running a distant second in the contest to be the most interesting character on his own show. Grimm is most alive in the scenes where Nick teams up with Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), a monster who is trying hard to walk the straight path. These moments introduce some much-needed levity to a drama where every echoing slam of a file-cabinet drawer amounts to a portentous groan. Monroe is offended that Nick views him as an amplus malus lupus: “As you can see, I am not that big and I am done with the bad thing. … How do I stay good? Through a strict regimen of diet, drugs, and Pilates.” This guy’s got a sense of humor. But is he technically a guy? I’m asking because Nick’s been playing fast and loose with the search and seizure. Are the beasties on Grimm sufficiently human as to enjoy due-process rights?